Ever felt stressed or overwhelmed? Too much to do too little time? How should you plan your time and development?
I have had a career involving the scariest time management. I have been in tears because I knew that I simply could not be in two places at once i.e at an important meeting while I should be collecting my children from nursery on the other side of town. Sometimes its unavoidable but I can tell you - its not a good place to be.
Being a full time musician brings additional challenges. So how do you plan and manage time? There are some key principles that you need to work at.
To manage your time better you need to understand your habits by monitoring how you use time. That will let you know when you are being productive and when you are wasting time. I used a Google calendar to do this - colour coding things like practice time, being my children's taxi, household things, travel, college, going out, work and other commitments. Its helpful to check what spare time might be available.
Prioritise. Work out what has to be done first. And I extend this to my whole life - not just my music or work. Most of us have commitments - for example family commitments or whatever. Where do these sit in your list of priotities. It will be different for different people and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Set objectives (preferably SMART - i.e. specific, measurable, achievable or attainable - but stretching, relevant and timed.) Keep these under review.
Many appraisal systems are founded on these principles. Objectives are set, at least annually, using these criteria. But I have never yet seen objectives the same at the end of the year as at the beginning. New unforeseen things crash in and others go on the back burner. Its a dynamic picture
The new year is a good time to reflect (more on this in a future
Who is the task for? In my last job I would always do things for Ministers before doing things for my boss and doing things for HR would be last on my list (sorry) - it just wasn't important in the whole cut and thrust of policy work. So work out which of your tasks are important taking this into account.
What is it for? In college, it might be more important to
make sure you plan work to get through your assessment before something else that could be put off a couple off weeks without dire consequences?
As a working musician it will be important to do the work that brings enables you to pay the rent and earn your living.
Know your deadlines and plan. Order the tasks. Different people plan in different ways so find a way that works for you. Personally I can't abide lists on bits of paper. I use an electronic "to do list" - a simple and effective (and free!)technique. Set electronic reminders if necessary. There are absolutely loads of planning tools available on the web. As I said above plan in practice time, family time, the time at College and so on.
Don't just leave the tasks until the day before they are due.
You must look at them and plan what it takes to achieve them. Sometimes this can result in a whole series of subtasks that need to be planned in before you can complete the principle task. For example, to get that DFM, there are a lot of subtasks - blogs, technical playing, performances, composition - all to be to different timescales.
There is nothing more annoying than discovering at the last minute that you can't finish because of some piece of information or other work that needs done first - and you don't have enough time to do it. Its really project management and depending on the complexity, there is project management software (e.g. some of which are free) which you can use. But be warned. There are people spend much too long planning and kid themselves they are working hard and progressing when in actual fact they never start the task or leave it too late!.
Cut your cloth. Consider what the essentials of the task are. If you have an exam coming up - what do you already know - and where are you weak points. What are you likely to be asked? Concentrate on the weak points that you are likely to be asked first. Its like doing a risk assessment.
My point here is to spend only the time you need to. There is a trade off. You will get most of the basics in about the first 20-50% of the time most people spend on an issue. The other 50% is often spent fiddling and fretting for not much more gain. That's fine if you have the time and you are a perfectionist. But if not - cut your cloth and move on.
Remember the longer term tasks.
The danger of being focussed on first tasks first is the tendency to put longer term tasks on the back burner - until its too late or you can't do a decent job. Longer term tasks - eg that Grade 8 or whatever - can be so daunting that you keep putting off getting down to work convincing yourself you still have plenty time. Hmm.
The easiest way to deal with this is to be honest with yourself about which tasks seem too big to contemplate starting and then break them down into a first small step. Then a second and so on. So - imagine eating an elephant. It just too big to know where to start. However, you can eat it if you break it down into bit size chunks - elephant hamburgers!. Apply that principle to your large task. And be pleased with taking your small steps towards the goal.
For music practice, keeping a practice schedule could be helpful. I try to set myself practice targets.
There are also helpful websites on how to practice productively.
Don't take on other peoples burdens.
Don't get tied up doing things that should really be someone else's job. You would be surprised how difficult it is to avoid other peoples work. We naturally all want to help. There's a slim line between this and being seen as difficult and obstructive or not a team worker - so think about this too.
Educate yourself about time management techniques and tools that are right for you.
Its an interesting fact that out of any workforce there are about five percent that are mentally unstable (but probably undiagnosed) to the point that they should consider treatment. Now look around your colleagues. If there are twenty of you that means in all likelihood one of you is in trouble. Stress is a killer.
Each person is different and coping strategies/time management strategies for each individual need to be tailored. For example I find orchestral playing hard with all the classical techniques - having come upthrough an aural traditional route. My coping strategy is to plan in some time to listen to recordings and follow the music. I slow them, if necessary, to understand how the parts fit together. I think this is a much quicker process - for me - than simply trying to sight read the music without knowing the piece. Audacity is a wonderful thing for me. My sight reading gradually improves too.
My daughter is dyslexic. She has to plan time management techniques around learning to touch type because it takes too long to write. There are free training programmes on the web for this sort of thing. In my last job, I had to read a ton of papers all the time so I learned to speed read. Now all I need to do is transfer this to reading music!
I mentioned project management earlier. There are all sorts of complicated Project management techniques to help depending on the complexity of the task. I am actually a trained PRINCE 2 project manager. Its too complicated for everyday life as a musician but some of the ideas are helpful. For example I find the idea of tolerances, and resource planning helpful, as well as some of the principles which you should follow if you really know your goal is unachievable.
In playing music, the tolerances will be pretty small - one wrong note is too many. But there is more leeway in some of the written assessments. A pass is a pass, as they say.
Resources usually means people, money, equipment e.g. IT etc. So if you are about to record, you might need session musicians, money to pay them, the recording studio, rehearsal time etc and access to the equipment to record. Plan these in if they give you the advantage in time you are seeking.
I bought Sibelius because its just such a hassle not having it. I am not sure its saving me time at the moment but hopefully it will pay off as I learn and it gives me higher quality output than not having it.
If all else fails - and you know you don't have the resources (time, people, money) , you can seek to negotiate to either get more of these or to change the output of the "project". Could you get deadlines extended? Or could you agree to reduce the spec of the project. So if that performance can't be put off and you know its unachievable - perhaps you shorten the set, play easier pieces or whatever.
The last thing is to relax. People often feel they are the only ones not coping as well as they might be. But I can tell you that you are not alone. If you are finding life difficult - the likelihood is that others are too. It can often help to talk about it - two heads can be better than one. Put it into perspective. Whatever the problem - its only small part of your life.
If you get seriously stressed - and I have seen this time and again in work - colleagues crash out - it can have devastating consequences. It happens in the music like any other work. You need to take action. At the end of the day your health and happiness comes first. Sometimes all that is required is a way to take the pressure off for a few weeks.
But if you time manage well you are unlikely to get to this in the first place, you will feel more in control and able to achieve your full potential. We know that makes sense don't we?